Menu Close

Babies versus science

The science of raising a perfect child

How long should a child be breastfed? Do heterosexual couples make better parents than same-sex couples? These are two questions that have respectively been thrust into the eye of the popular media storm thanks to a recent cover story by Time magazine, a few words by President Barack Obama and Australia’s minister for Finance Penny Wong. For parents and policy makers these are just two, among many, contentious issues that are frequently debated.

As a scientist and new mother I’m finding myself drawn into regular conversations on topics about child-rearing in which multiple and varying opinions, no doubt espoused by helpful family, the media and self-help books, seem to have achieved the status of incontrovertible facts.

As with most scientific questions, it’s possible to find data that supports or refutes a vast array of different claims about every facet of child rearing.

It’s obviously unethical and inconceivable to suggest running controlled randomised trials to properly assess different parenting options (imagine randomly assigning children to heterosexual or same sex couples). But that’s not the biggest obstacle facing people advocating one thing over another. The problem that seems to be ignored in any discussion about what is “best” for child development is that it implies we have a clear idea of what would constitute the perfect child or adult.

In science the only way to test the success of any method or intervention is with the use of clear outcome measures. So if you only want the best for your own child, or all children around the world, what exactly are you wishing for? Should he or she aim to emulate:

  • someone ambitious and financially successful, such as media magnate Rupert Murdoch who has an estimated wealth of US$8.3bn dollars?

  • an athlete that’s faster and stronger than their peers, such as the swimmer Michael Phelps who is the most successful Olympian of the modern era?

  • a genius like Frances Crick who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962, or the philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre who was awarded, but declined, the Nobel Prize for Literature two years later.


Alternatively, should we be favouring the jack-of-all-trades over the master? Even that would imply a desire for outwardly visible achievements or well-developed skills. How then do we rate the selfless guardians of society that devote their lives to helping those less fortunate?

Hang on … have we forgotten about the happiness and general wellbeing of the child? Aren’t we supposed to only want our children to be happy and content with their lot?

You may look over the above list and think the best option would be to achieve as much as possible in as many different areas as possible while maintaining a friendly and happy disposition. Why can’t our children have it all?

I agree it’s possible to be more than one thing, but a person can’t be everything. Ambition and success generally require a desire to always strive for more – and, by definition, a lack of contentment and satisfaction with one’s current situation.

Similarly I wonder if it is possible to be truly empathetic and open-minded if you have grown up without enduring some degree of adversity? Is the “best” child the one that excels at everything or the one that struggles and learns to appreciate the highs and the lows that commonly define one’s life?

Particularly in the case of breastfeeding, people often cite the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life with continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond. I am happy to believe this is optimal in the context of worldwide survival rates (the clearest and most important medical outcome measure available).


The WHO cites the role of breastfeeding in reducing the two primary causes of child mortality: diarrhoea and pneumonia. They also note the importance of the constant availability and affordability of breast milk to ensuring adequate sustenance is provided to the infant.

I won’t argue against any of this. I do, however, believe these factors have little relevance to the debate about breastfeeding toddlers in the typical family environment in developed countries where clean water and nutritious food are readily available.

The mother on the front cover of Time is not continuing to breastfeed her three-year-old son due to a fear that her child might die or suffer from malnutrition. She, like many other mothers, believe that breastfeeding is important for developing strong bonding between mother and baby. Why? Because it is “best” for the child!. Hmmmm …

My mother recently confessed to me that she had so much trouble breastfeeding my older brother that she never even bothered trying to breastfeeding me. I can only wonder how much “better” I could have been if she had!

It seems to me that the most rational conclusion to all this is that debates about raising perfect children are a waste of air.

Olivia Carter

Having said that, I must confess that even this personal conviction does not make me immune to my own continual struggles with balancing a career and family. For my family it seems the biggest question relates to daycare. How much daycare is too much? How early is too early? Even if the kids love going to daycare, are we somehow shirking our responsibility as parents sending our kids off to daycare?

What is best for my kids? I’m not sure – all I know is that science does not have the answer.

In case you’re wondering how little baby Max is going and what I hope for his future. Considering the volume and persistence of his screams at five-weeks-old (see above), he has the lungs to be a singer, or maybe he will be better suited to leading the cries of protest – if they’ll still have good old-fashioned street protests in 2030.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 139,700 academics and researchers from 4,247 institutions.

Register now